Reforms in Balkan countries bring important improvements to the region’s governments and economies, whether or not they result in rapid EU membership, the EU enlargement commissioner said on 7 December.
“I prefer not to talk about enlargement negotiations but about a process,” said Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood policy and Enlargement Negotiations. “They are not only taking over the acquis, but they are implementing the spirit of the acquis. This is definitely something which takes time.”
Hahn was talking at a Friends of Europe Policy Summit on the Balkans and their integration into the EU. While movement towards EU membership is the headline topic for the six Western Balkan countries, they are also trying to modernise their economies. That means improving transport and information communications inside each country, within the region and with the rest of Europe. Such moves are essential given the high unemployment in the region, especially among young people.
Integration has long been a goal, both for the Western Balkan states and the EU, but the past few years have seen a number of setbacks. The refugee crisis that started in 2015 led to public fears of too many outsiders entering the EU, and was accompanied by talk that some of the migrants might have links to terrorist groups.
In April 2016, Dutch voters rejected the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine in an advisory referendum – a signal that EU public opinion is turning against enlargement. And in June, British voters chose to leave the EU by a small majority, triggering uncertainty over the future of the European project.
Event recordingA conversation with Johannes Hahn
The EU has pledged to continue membership negotiations with countries in the Western Balkans. But the region faces many challenges, including lack of progress in restructuring the economic model to ensure that all countries are functioning market economies driven by export and investments rather than import and consumption. Improving connectivity in the Western Balkans is also a key factor, not only in boosting economic growth and fostering job opportunities for youth but also in forging better neighbourly relations with the EU, despite the perils of radicalisation. Is the long road to membership a vision or a reality?
With some of the Balkans’ top politicians and decision-makers in attendance, we will be debating ways of further re-energising the region’s myriad connections with the EU.
European Union leaders have pledged to continue membership negotiations with countries in the Western Balkans despite Brexit, saying their commitment to EU expansion remains as strong as ever. Speaking at the Balkans conference held in Paris in July, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, insisted the EU would continue to nourish “Euro-enthusiasm” in the region and said EU integration of the Balkans was important for peace and stability both in the region and in the EU. Meanwhile, Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, has warned that one of the biggest challenges in preparing the Western Balkans for EU membership is restructuring the economic model to ensure that all countries are functioning market economies driven by export and investments rather than import and consumption.
- Given the hard work that lies ahead on Brexit and waning public appetite for further EU enlargement, are European leaders being overly optimistic in promising that membership negotiations with the Western Balkan states will remain on track?
- What are the key sectors where progress has been made and which questions pose the biggest challenge in the EU membership negotiations?
- To what extent are Russia, China and Turkey competing with the EU’s presence and influence in the region?
Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs
Senior Adviser for South Central Europe, U.S. State Department
Chairman of the Administrative Board of the Czech China Chamber of Cooperation, former special envoy to the OSCE and the Western Balkans, former EU commissioner for enlargement and European neighbourhood policy and Trustee of Friends of Europe
Chief Negotiator for Serbia’s Accession to the European Union
Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS)
Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)
Managing Director at New Horizons Project
Increased connectivity, especially in the transport and energy sectors, will help the Western Balkans to attract more investments, thereby boosting the region’s economic growth and capacity to create jobs. Better connectivity can also help forge good neighbourly relations among countries in the region and ensure stronger connections with the EU. The EU has set aside up to €1 billion for connectivity investment projects and technical assistance for the 2014-2020 period, with special attention given to transport networks, regional energy efficiency and green growth. Chinese, Turkish and other foreign investors are also putting their money on connectivity projects. Boosting connections is not just about hard infrastructure, however. It also requires “soft” reform measures to open markets, create a transparent regulatory framework that builds investor confidence, and the removal of barriers.
- While the focus is very much on hard connectivity, are countries in the region implementing the “soft” reform and improved economic governance measures required to create real intra-regional connections in the region and is digital connectivity getting enough attention?
- What progress is being made to reduce income and labour market inequalities across the region and how does the inequality challenge impact on investment plans?
- Are countries moving fast enough to ensure respect for the rule of law and in fighting organised crime and corruption?
Marta Arsovska Tomovska
Minister of Information Society and Administration, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee
Minister of Energy and Industry, Albania
Minister of Communication and Transport at the Council of Ministers, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Chief Executive Officer of Appdec
Managing Director at New Horizons Project
Traditional genre of folk music from Bosnia and Herzegovina
As Grandson of Zaim Imamović, one of the most influencial sevdah singers of the Westen Balkans, Damir Imamović, also a musician, started developing his own repertoire while performing in Bosnia and across Europe.
Damir Imamović’s sevdah is based on a passionate research of traditional music of the region. While meeting sevdah masters, musicians, singers and authors of this art form, he constantly expands his repertoire and creates a special style of contemporary sevdah. Damir has been cited as the « king of sevdah music » by the Huffington Post and «a true revolutionary of the genre » by Sevdalinkas.com.
More information on Damir Imamovic.
A conversation with
European Commissioner for Budget
The flow of refugees and migrants through the so-called “Balkans route” may have eased in recent months but the crisis has been a vivid reminder of the crucial role played by the Western Balkans in tackling immigration and human trafficking. The region has also seen a rise in radicalisation of young people and a high number of fighters going to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, prime ministers of the Western Balkans have signed up to establishing a Regional Youth Cooperation Office to fund projects that enhance youth cooperation, diversity, regional mobility and reconciliation as well as promoting opportunities for professional qualifications. The focus on young people is important for a region where a lack of opportunities has resulted in youth unemployment figures of over 50 per cent in many countries and also prompted a heavy brain-drain across the region.
- Now that the crisis has eased on the so-called “Balkans route”, what is the state of cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans on questions related to immigration and refugees?
- What is being done to counter the rise in radicalisation by implementing better policies in areas such as education and job-creation and just how can the EU help the Western Balkans in this struggle?
- What are the main priorities of the new Regional Youth Cooperation Office and how will it operate in practice?
Head of Programme Department at European Grassroots Antiracist Movement
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kosovo
Former President of the Robert Schuman Institute in Budapest and Chair of the European Parliament Committee for Culture and Education
Manager of the Istanbul Regional Hub for Europe and the CIS, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Managing Director at New Horizons Project
A politician and journalist, Tanja Fajon is currently serving as Member of the European Parliament. A passionate advocate for freedom of movement and its economic benefits, Fajon previously served as the European Parliament rapporteur on the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. In this position, she was instrumental in helping Albania as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina win the right to visa-free travel to Europe. In 2016, Slovenian opinion polls ranked her as one of the most popular political figures in the country.
Štefan Füle is a Czech politician and diplomat who currently serves as the Czech Special Envoy to the OSCE and the Western Balkans. Having started his career in the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he worked as Czech Ambassador to Lithuania and to the UK, as well as becoming Czech Permanent Representative to NATO. In 2010, he became the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy where he was instrumental in setting up and developing the Eastern Partnership with six countries in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus.
Johannes Hahn is an Austrian politician at the forefront of Europe’s recovery and the Next Generation EU policy instrument. Under his watch, the EU will kickstart its green bond sales in October 2021, transforming the EU into the largest issuer of environmentally-friendly debt in the world. Hahn is the former European commissioner for European neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations and the former European commissioner for regional policy, prior to which he served as the Austrian minster for science and research. As a member of the Austrian People’s Party youth movement, he drafted the party’s first European manifesto and adopted a resolutely pro-European stance.
Giles Merritt is the Founder of Friends of Europe, and was its Secretary General between 1999 and 2015, and its Chairman between 2016 and 2020.
A former Financial Times Brussels Correspondent, Giles Merritt is a journalist, author and broadcaster who has for over four decades specialised in European public policy questions. In 2010 he was named by the Financial Times as one of its 30 most influential “Eurostars”, together with the European Commission’s President and NATO’s Secretary General.
Giles Merritt joined the Financial Times in 1968, and from 1972 until 1983 he was successively FT correspondent in Paris, Dublin/Belfast, and Brussels. From 1984 to 2010 he was a columnist for the International Herald Tribune (IHT), where his Op-Ed page articles ranged widely across EU political and economic issues.
In 1982 he published “World Out of Work”, an award-winning study of unemployment in industrialised countries. In 1991, his second book “The Challenge of Freedom” about the difficulties facing post-communist Eastern Europe was published in four languages. His book “Slippery Slope: Europe’s Troubled Future” (Oxford University Press 2016), was shortlisted for the European Book Prize.
A Serbian diplomat and politician, Goran Svilanović plays a leading role in the promotion and enhancement of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. He previously served as Coordinator of the Economic and Environmental Activities at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (2000-2004). Furthermore, Svilanović has worked in numerous organisations and committees, such as the International Commission on the Balkans and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.
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